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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 July, 2003, 15:13 GMT 16:13 UK
Chechnya's suicide battalions
Russia's Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov has blamed two deadly suicide blasts at a Moscow rock concert on Chechen separatist rebels, saying that the event was linked with elections in the troubled southern republic.

There have been heightened fears of attacks by Chechen militants since the siege at a Moscow theatre last year in which 129 hostages and 41 guerrillas died.

A person cries for Moscow theatre siege victim
The Moscow theatre siege brought fear to the heart of the capital
And although the Russian Government has been insisting with ever greater stridency in recent months that the situation in Chechnya is "normalising", the latest deaths tell a different story.

If it is proven that the suicide bombers were indeed Chechen fighters it will illustrate that the rebels are still strong enough to stage shocking attacks on Russian civilians.

Like the hostage taking at the theatre and a bombing in the heart of the pro-Moscow administration in Grozny in December, that killed 80, this latest attack has taken place somewhere that the rebels were not supposed to be able to reach.

Open in new window : In pictures
Images of life amid Chechnya's war

The militants, under field commanders such as Shamil Basayev, are largely confined to mountain retreats in the south of the country, where they are still regularly bombarded by Russian forces.

But it appears Moscow is still vulnerable to suicide bombers, now an established part of the rebel armoury.

Soldier on guard in Grozny street
Thousands of Russian forces remain in Chechnya

BBC News Online's Russia analyst Stephen Mulvey says suicide has been part of the rhetoric of the Chechen war from its inception in 1994, although the rebels did not really start employing it as a tactic until 2000.

Before that Chechen forces took steps that were risky enough to verge on the suicidal, but they nonetheless also took all possible measures to survive.

But now suicide bombers, whether born out of desperation or a new spirit of radical Islam, are part of the Chechen rebels' arsenal.

Suicide battalions

In the past Commander Basayev, has been quoted as saying that the "Islamic peacekeeping army" in Chechnya contains two battalions of suicide troops, numbering 500 people in total, and that more were set to join.

Refugees in Sleptsovskaya, Ingushetia
There are still 65,000 Chechen refugees in Ingushetia

Many Russian analysts have interpreted the switch to suicide attacks as a sign of Chechen desperation - a signal that their resistance is running out of steam.

However, others argue that resistance is far from waning.

Islam has become a major factor in this the second Chechen war, with a much more fundamentalist form, under which martyrdom is glorified, on the rise among some of the combatants.

Statistics show just how badly the war has affected both the lives of both Chechens and Russians:

  • The official figure for the number of Russian soldiers who have died in Chechnya since 1999 is 4,705, though the organisation Soldiers' Mothers of Russia puts the figure at 11,000.
  • Their estimate for the first Chechen war, which lasted from 1994 -1996 is 14,000 dead, compared with the official 5,500. Civilian deaths in this war are numbered in the tens of thousands.
  • More than 60,000 Chechen refugees remain in neighbouring Ingushetia.
  • More than 250 people have gone missing in Chechnya this year, according to a member of the pro-Moscow government.

Q&A: The Chechen conflict
29 Oct 02  |  Europe
Hope lives on in Chechen ruins
15 Apr 03  |  Europe

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